I’m in the mood for one of those generic, anniversary-free posts today, so here’s a general chat about ordinary automobiles during the First World War, specifically those in military use. It’s a subject largely ignored outside the petrolhead bubble, it touches on several debates as yet unresolved, and it’s another small light on the differences between reality and the heritage history.
Arguments are still in progress about the First World War’s role in the rapid development of automobile technology, and about its part in the establishment of mass production. Because they are based on individual interpretations of the same inconclusive information, the arguments will never be resolved, but here’s a skim through the majority view that works for me.
While the demands of war gave an undeniable boost to automobile research and development, the fundamentals were already in place by 1914 and wartime efforts were understandably focused on refining existing design than inventing anything new. Mass production of motors was also getting started on both sides of the Atlantic before 1914, and plans were already in place for its expansion, but it grew on steroids in response to mushrooming demand and the increasing willingness of governments to provide massive levels of support.
By the end of the War this had created a huge industry with enormous production capacity. Manufacturers everywhere, especially in the United States (and above all Ford), had already geared up for mass supply of a 1919 campaigning season that never happened, and European arms manufacturers like Citroen and BMW were converting themselves into automobile companies as means of finding something profitable to do with all those newly obsolete factories. Both the refinement of existing automobile design and the sector’s forced growth into mass marketing laid the ground for a post-War sales surge that saw cars become humanity’s favourite toy, a situation the planet is still struggling to survive.
A third debate still in progress concerns the extent to which motor vehicles took over wartime military transport, communications and other auxiliary roles hitherto carried out by horses. The question didn’t interest anyone much at the time (better things to be doing), so a lack of basic information means any answer will always be a matter of extrapolation and speculation, rendered uncertain by the vagaries of individual choice in a world still divided on the relative merits of horse and car. But some relevant stats are available, along with plenty of more or less reliable memoir, and between them they tell a tale of horses over horsepower.
By the end of the War, modern armies were using plenty of motorised vehicles that weren’t armoured cars or tanks, in numbers that reflected their wartime economic status. The British armed services led the way, as befitted the biggest industrialised nation with four years of war behind it and no blockade to beat. At the Armistice, they employed 66,352 trucks, 48,175 motorbikes, 43,187 cars (including ambulances), 6,121 tractors and miscellaneous other vehicles, and (of course) 1,293 steam-powered wagons. France is thought to have been in roughly the same league, while Italy mustered about 25,000 trucks and perhaps 12,000 other vehicles. By that time United States armed forces had brought about 20,000 vehicles to Europe, but had a quarter of a million more ready for shipment if needed in 1919. As for the Russian Empire, nobody knows.
On the receiving end of the Allied naval blockade mass production of automobiles was undoubtedly more difficult, but the figures to prove it are hard to find. It seems safe to assume that German armed forces had access to and used more motorised transport than any of their allies, but the German Army’s vehicular roster at the end of the War was relatively paltry, amounting to some 16,000 tractors, 25,000 trucks, 12,000 cars, 3,200 ambulances and 5,400 motorbikes.
Austria-Hungary did have a fairly successful pre-War automobile industry, with centres in Bohemia and Hungary, but expansion was hampered by material shortages and the refusal of some manufacturers to expand output beyond levels sustainable after the War. No figures are available, but anecdotal evidence backs up the assumption that, although Imperial forces certainly used some trucks, cars and motorcycles, they were few and far between. Most, if not all motorised vehicles used by wartime Ottoman and Bulgarian forces – generally trucks – were supplied by Germany or Austria-Hungary.
So the Allies held a growing advantage over the Central Powers in vehicle numbers as the economic world war progressed, a situation destined to be repeated for a different set of alliances during the Second World War. At first glance the numbers look big and important, but they shrink in the context of millions mobilised (the British figures, for instance, take in every service all over the world), and they are only as important as the vehicles were useful. In some circumstances and conditions they were immensely valuable, bringing increased speed, efficiency and capacity to a variety of transport, haulage and communications tasks. In many more situations and for many reasons, they were either unused or useless.
The use of staff cars to whisk field commanders from place to place provides a good example of the differences between theory and practice in this branch of mechanised warfare. Early in the War, many officers in the major western European armies remained suspicious of the new technology and preferred to get around on horseback, a prejudice that was eroded but never eliminated by wartime experience, and that persisted throughout the conflict in many of the less advanced forces. Plenty more military men everywhere were automobile enthusiasts, but the most car-friendly officer with the most state-of-the-art vehicle might still have trouble putting it to good use.
Fast, reliable automobiles were readily available by 1914, but they were still fragile by modern standards, so that the broken terrain around a battlefront – which was anyway difficult for an ordinary wheeled vehicle – frequently caused breakdowns and damage, as did the extremes of climate found in most theatres. Cars of the period were also relatively difficult to maintain, and commanders in all the main armies complained of a shortage of mechanics. Fuel and oil were often in short supply, particularly for German and Austro-Hungarian forces, but the Vienna administration’s failure to plan for any other supply needs in 1914 left many of its vehicles crippled during the War’s first months and highlighted another major issue, because large numbers of spare parts were also absolutely vital to field operations. Another limitation on automobile use, for staff officers or anyone else, was a chronic shortage of qualified drivers in an age when driving was a relatively complex task and hardly a popular pastime.
All these obstacles served to limit the practical impact of all the other wartime applications for motorised vehicles except motorbikes, which were simpler, more rugged machines capable of delivering one man and a message (and later in the War, a radio) across most terrain. None of them made any difference to the motor vehicle’s symbolic impact on perceptions about the First World War, then and ever since.
Automobiles of every kind were propaganda stars for every armed force in every belligerent country, and senior commanders used some of the finest models to add swagger to their profiles, particularly when photographs were involved. The epitome of this tendency was a man who knew a thing or two about swagger and symbolism, General Joffre, French Army c-in-c for the first half of the war, who plucked famed racing driver Georges Boillot from the air service in 1914 to speed him up and down the Western Front – on good roads behind the lines, of course.
Boillot soon escaped his c-in-c’s clutches and took to the sky, becoming a much-decorated ‘air ace’ (in French terms, any pilot with five or more confirmed victories) before his death during a dogfight in 1916, but he’d done his bit for the conflict’s image as a modern, mechanised enterprise. It’s an image that has refused to go away, and is still used by the heritage industry to give its mindless carnage thesis an unlikely sheen of glamour.
So the technology wasn’t fundamentally changed during the conflict, mass production was hastened but was coming anyway, and four-legged friends were still the basis for most military transportation – but at least the automobile’s four-year military adventure can claim to have permanently warped our view of the First World War.